Mixing it Up – Resources for Making Our Own Games!

MegaMix

Educational “games” are an odd lot. Often they are little more than quizzes parading as a game and award the player with some trivial digital “prize” for completing each challenge successfully. There are a handful that I have experienced that seemed like the game portion of the educational game was given even modest attention, but one really can find a lot of value in games that were probably never intended to be exactly educational to begin with if a quick look below the surface is taken.

One of the focuses Grant and I have for his homeschooling curriculum is to delve into computer science. This includes programming/coding and he is the one that deserves the credit for finding this little gem: The Megamix Engine. The Megamix Engine is a fan-developed work which creates a very specialized version of Gamemaker Studio tailored for creating Mega Man fan games. It comes loaded with pretty much every asset one could imagine from the vast library of Mega Man games, but the code is still accessible so that would-be programmers can open it up just to inspect how things are done or even make edits and adjustments in order to alter existing tiles, characters and behaviors. I found it to be really helpful in explaining to Grant why we were spending time working on basic coding, but after he could actually see it working and found he could actually read and understand some of it I feel like he was much more willing to work on the basics of coding.

megaMix
The basic engine screen, which I see a lot of these days, in all its glory.

There is an actual gathering of user-designed levels from this engine and the group has called the resulting fan-game Make a Good Mega Man Level.  It currently has two releases and they give critique and feedback to the up-and-coming game/level designers which can be helpful in several ways. One particular benefit I have noticed is Grant’s ability to take criticism and his resilience to the often unfair opinions that some folks enjoy spewing across the internet wherever creation is happening. Seeing the potential harm in unfair and negative criticism has really helped Grant to be more gentle in his own critiques and I have seen him really pick up a lot of authority in this little circle of young artists and designers for his generally fair and honest yet constructive manner of critiquing level design, music, sprite art and all of the other things game related. If he found himself unfamiliar with something I have been delighted to watch him research on his own, study and acquaint himself with whatever the subject may be so that he is able to take part in that particular aspect of his groups activity. If only all “games” could encourage that kind of enthusiasm and study!

Another project spawned originally by this same engine is Mega Man Maker.  If you are noticing a theme here, yes Grant has meandered down the path of retro gaming and really fallen in love with the Mega Man series.  Mega Man Maker is more similar to Mario Maker in its design.  It has a “drag and drop” style menu that lets the user quickly put together some really nice designs and does all of the heavy lifting itself.  Sprites, animation, behaviors.. all of this is handled by the engine so that when a Met is plopped on a little hill in front of Mega Man, the little fella already knows he shout pop his hat up and spray bullets when Mega gets a bit too close.  Easy-peasy, right?  The only downside Grant has experienced with this comes in his exposure to the original engine and its flexibility in letting him edit specific behaviors and even tiles.  The huge bonus to this game is that it has a pretty vibrant online community with which to share games such that there is a near-endless supply of new content – which is of course where these maker-style games really shine.  One can never really exhaust the content faster than it can be produced as long as the community is active.

magmml2

Watching him work so hard at something that could be seen as simple play made me wonder about my own perceptions of what one might be able to learn while gaming. There is certainly some merit in teaching restraint, patience and careful spending in practically any game that has some sort of economy and money system. Ranging from the rupees of the Zelda series to the newer costume shops in Mario Odyssey and stretching to the near-endless means of resource gathering and crafting found in Skyrim, there is no shortage of games that teach some simple resource management if even on a superficial level. Of course wherever there is a money system there will be math and that is on full display in many of these games.

Logic puzzles are also quite commonplace in most adventure games we have played and has even found a way to creep into some of the newer platformers. A Zelda dungeon (or in the case of Breath of the Wild, a shrine) simply seems incomplete without solving all of the peculiar little logic puzzles. Breath of the Wild does a grand job of this with only the very limited supply of runes on the Sheika Slate, one must mix and match and really get creative in how to figure out how to pass many of the games more perplexing shrine challenges.

BotW-Shrine
Just gotta guide this fragile, wobbly platform suspended by inflated octorok-balloons past all of these spikey boxes.  No prob, Link.

Returning to the subject of tools and software that make it easier for players and users to create their own content, what an amazing artistic outlet this can become. Grant and his fellow Mega-makers really take this whole design aspect quite seriously, going so far as to actually look up resources, tutorials, videos and the like on the subject of good game design. Games such as Mario Maker for the WiiU are even more accessible, making it easy to simply pop in a disk and start making authentic-seeming Super Mario levels of one’s own. This is a trend that I hope to see continue.. and not just a little selfishly. Would I ever love to have a “Zelda-maker” game. I suspect someone will soon venture into the 3d-creator realm with a good entry as well and who knows where all of the new VR will take us. It’s certainly an exiting time for both designers and players alike.

If you are interested in checking out the Make a Good Mega Man Level fangames, Mega Man Maker or try your hand at crafting a game of any kind from the old abandonware check out the links and give it a shot.  The games are quite fun and it is interesting to see for oneself some of the upper-level challenges presented to a game designer.  Grant has finished MaGMML 2, as it is affectionately referred to (that’s pronounced “mag-mammal 2”, just in case) and I was surprised at the quality of this little fangame.  The hub-world is made to be like a little fairgrounds with loads of characters from the series strolling about and running things.  All of them are at least somewhat interactive with clever things to say and even a costume shop a-la Mario Odyssey.  I really cannot recommend it enough.

Thanks for reading!

PlantPoweredGamers
Grow Strong. Game On.

Homeschooling – Level 1

Our first official month of homeschooling is in the books. The way is twisted and full of tricky steps, but so far we are weathering the transition as best we know how at this time. I found Khan Academy to be my anchor as it provided a very simple platform from which to set up both math and computer science studies. They offer so much more that we may eventually look into, but we are taking it slow for now. We are using  Crash Course and Extra Credits for a lot of our history and social studies and if you have never given those two a look then I cannot recommend it enough. They really do a great job of making learning fun and entertaining – as it should be. We tried a few Ted Talks and although I personally love them Grant thought they were a little less engaging and preferred the other two, so I suppose we will stick with that for now.

Creative writing is one of the areas we really hoped to focus on. Currently the main project is writing some articles for Plant Powered Gamers, mostly game reviews and musings on video game material in general. Don’t be surprised to see our blossoming little writer posting quite a few times this year. Please encourage him if you have a chance and leave him a note of anything you’d like him to try out, review or ponder!
For Foreign Language studies he decided to try learning Japanese and we are using Duolingo, Japanese from Zero! and Japanesepod101 as well as some simple printable sheets I have found on the web to work on the lettering system. I have some experience with this language and though I’m far from fluent I think we will likely make great progress working together. Eventually I will look into some of the English-Japanese speaking connection programs and apps out there. When I last studied Skype was the only option but I know this has expanded.

We have a fresh sketchbook which Grant has begun working in already and I’ve encouraged him to pretty much doodle anything he likes in it. So far he has designed a few game layouts and of late that is his favorite subject to draw and create. We are also working on sketching some of his favorite enemies and characters from games he likes. We both agreed this would be great to work on so that he would be able to better put his ideas to paper when he is designing things for games. We are working on ideas for a little comic strip as well which we may finish up and use as a web comic. I’ve always wanted to give that a try anyway, so it’ll be a fun project. Painting is a hard sell with Grant. I really hope to work on it through the year and perhaps as he becomes more familiar it will become more enjoyable. He currently struggles with frustration but aren’t all things a little frustrating in the beginning?

Grant is also tackling several chores around the house to help out. This is one of the places I feel like homeschooling really shines – to teach basic life skills. We are pretty light on the chores for now but I really hope to emphasize a lot of these as we go forward. He hopes to learn to cook several basic meals and help with a lot of the house cleaning by the end of the year.

There has been a lot of focus of course on game design, which was one of the things Grant was most excited about adding to his school day. We have only touched on some fundamental computer science and programming but I really hope to bring the percentage of work in that area up pretty high. He is currently working his way through the basics of Java and HTML and we agreed that when he has finished those initial courses we could look into Game Maker Studio 2. We already have and use Construct 2 but it seems that while Construct 2 is good for simpler “mobile-style” games that the Game Maker Studio would be more appropriate for larger scaled PC or Console games. We shall see and perhaps we can even do a comparison/contrast article for the benefit of others who might be headed down this road after us.

Wish us luck as we continue forward!

Mid-summer Musings

July has already made its way to us, or perhaps we to it.  Mid-summer in the southeast really encourages one to take an occasional lazy day, or at least midday, in order to avoid the ridiculous heat and humidity.  This coupled with lots of time doing rather brain-free tasks in the yard of late has left us with plenty of time to ponder plans for the coming year.

Grant is fully in summer mode, loving the freedom and questioning why that sort of freedom ever has to end.  I realized that there was honestly no good answer to that question.  This left us once again returning to the discussion on trying homeschooling.  I have wanted to homeschool Grant since he was born.  I admit it may be more appealing in my imagination than the reality, but I love trying new things, new approaches and time with him is never a waste in any case so it’s hard to imagine how this couldn’t be a fun and exciting experience.  Grant is a straight-A student, having made it now though to the 6th grade and has never made less than 90% marks on his grade reports, so I know that it isn’t the case that he is just being lazy.  When a solid and productive student like that can be so incredibly dissatisfied with what they are doing and the things they are learning it just sets warning bells off for me.

Thankfully there are more resources on homeschooling than I could use in a lifetime, so I am in no fear of running out of methods, plans and ideas.  Currently we are leaning towards the “unschooling” or “Sudbury” methods.  I believe he has some pretty solid interests in science and technology and that will lead us into the other necessary subjects as they become needed.  He also quite the fan of fantasy literature and we have a great library to facilitate which is just a few miles down the road.  I am hoping to encourage him to do both some creative writing as well as outlines and scripting for his YouTube channel.  It is actually pretty exciting thinking up all of the ways we may be able to follow his interests and focus education to be very personalized.

Now this was not the intended focus of my writing when I began this, but then my focus shifts like the wind in regards to what I feel up to sharing.  I’ll be sure to share anything that we run across that seems amazing enough to be duplicated and of course I may mention our progress in passing or perhaps regularly, according to how interesting it seems.

In any case I have to give a link (that is like a digital shout-out) to the two pages that are acting like hub-worlds for my research and planning:

Bright Horizons Academy

This is the cover school that we chose to use.  They cover anywhere in Alabama and allow complete curriculum flexibility.  They also provide a massive list of links for great homeschooling information and inexpensive/free material.  This was the list that actually led me toward the unschooling information which I really was not even aware of until about a month ago.

Stories of an Unschooling Family

This page is actually a blog written primarily by a mother of several homeschooled children.  They have been unschooling for several years and it was great to see how that process unfolded for them as it gives me some insight as to what to expect.  As a bonus she does vlogs and a podcast and being Australian, she has a pretty awesome accent.

If any of you, my dear readers, know of any other great resources be sure to leave me a comment and let me know.  Wish us luck!

PlantPoweredGamers
Grow Strong. Game On.